How To Use SMART Goals To Stay Focused & Motivated

5 minutes

Whether you’re packing for an epic vacation or prepping for your first engineering sprint, nothing sparks motivation like a solid plan. Having a concrete path toward a clear end goal helps you maintain a sense of momentum and achievement, and it can help make loftier goals feel easier to accomplish.

This is true for your coding goals, too. Stephanie Chiu, a Senior Software Engineer at Paypal and founder of Road to Tech, has helped tons of new and self-taught developers break into the field. For many people, especially career switchers or folks from nontraditional educational backgrounds, the hardest part is figuring out what to do next. “I find that many people just need a little guidance or advice,” she says. “They know they want to become a software engineer, they might take a couple of courses, but they don’t know how to actually get there.”

Big goals can be daunting, and not having a plan can leave you feeling paralyzed. But breaking larger milestones into smaller objectives can help you feel more capable and motivated, which usually leads to quicker progress, Stephanie says. 

One tried-and-true method you should consider when it comes to your own coding goals is the SMART goals framework — a planning method that helps clarify the path to your end goal, minimize indecisiveness, and keep you on track. “SMART” in SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. The words that make up that acronym provide a framework to keep in mind as you flesh out the plan toward your end goal.

We recently refreshed our catalog of programming courses, so they’re broken up into shorter, more specific modules. There are hundreds of free courses that will help you focus on exactly what you want to learn and achieve your SMART goals in a shorter amount of time. Ahead, we’ll go over how you can use the SMART goals framework to plan out your next steps and some common goals for new programmers.

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What is a SMART goal?

 Here’s what makes SMART goals so, well, smart.

  • Specific: Clearly define your goal so that it’s focused and detailed, rather than broad and vague.
    • What exactly are you looking to achieve? Is there a specific skill you want to learn, or are you looking for a particular job in web development or data science?
  • Measurable: Make sure there’s a metric or quantifiable criteria you can use to measure success towards your goal.
    • How will you track your weekly learning target? Which languages will you learn? What projects will you include in your portfolio to find a job?
  • Achievable: It’s awesome to challenge yourself, but you’ve got to make sure that your goal is realistic given your abilities or bandwidth.
    • What can you accomplish with your current capabilities and resources? What skills and resources do you need to get to where you want to be? Which do you have now, and how easily can you attain the rest?
  • Relevant: Goals should be meaningful and ladder up to larger objectives.
    • How does this tie into your other goals? What will your end goal allow you to do? 
  • Time-Bound: Give yourself a deadline or timeframe when you want to achieve your goal to keep yourself accountable and focused.
    • How long will this take to complete? What can you do if you don’t meet your deadline?

How to set SMART goals

The first thing Stephanie does when taking on a new mentee is have them break down their goals using the guidelines above. “We break down the whole process into small bits, and from there, even smaller bits,” she says. “At the end, they know what to focus on for every day, week, and month.” And once your plan is set, all you need is a little discipline.

Your SMART goals should clearly align with your desired end goal. For example, say you wanted to get a job as a professional software developer by next year. That’s a big goal, but it’s definitely realistic — tons of learners land tech jobs in just a matter of months. 

So where should you start? You might already have a few courses under your belt, or some experience contributing to open-source projects on GitHub. But let’s use the SMART framework to come up with an actionable plan.

SMART goals examples

Here’s what a SMART goals might look like for someone who wants to start applying to tech jobs (BTW, feel free to follow this plan yourself):

  • Specific: I will create a list of companies I want to work for and browse their job postings to get a sense of which tools and skills I should reflect in my application. I will use these skills to create several projects that I can include in my technical portfolio and resume.
  • Measurable & Achievable: I will complete two of Codecademy’s guided coding projects every month, and use code challenges to prepare for the technical interview process. I will also reach out to professional developers in Codecademy’s chapters or Discord for tips on how to further prepare and stand out as a great candidate.
  • Relevant: I need a technical resume and portfolio to get my foot in the door, and I want to do well on the technical interview to actually land a job. Talking to other developers will help me learn more about what to expect and might also lead to professional opportunities.
  • Time-Bound: I will complete four portfolio projects within two months and create my portfolio and resume by the third month. I will start applying to jobs by the fourth month, and I’ll concurrently take code challenges to prepare for the interview process.

Your goals will also likely evolve as you progress on your path. The cool thing about the SMART goals framework is that you can scale it to fit areas of your life — whether you’re trying to break into tech, build your own application, or develop skills that make you more productive at work. 

Setting SMART goals is a great way to keep yourself focused and on task. And if things don’t go as planned or it takes longer than you wanted to achieve a goal, try to stay positive and take it in stride. “It’s natural to feel a little down, especially when you’re looking for a job and possibly dealing with rejections,” Stephanie says. “But I find that having a positive mindset and outlook on things and learning to work smarter, not just harder, is the key to achieving your goals.” 

Ready to put your SMART goals into action? Check out our new and improved, bite-sized coding courses to plan what you’re going to learn next. Or read this list of small but meaningful coding goals for more inspo.

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